Tracking the Trash “Removal Chain”

M.I.T’s Senseable City Lab launched called an initiative Trash Track, which seeks to create a future where we “understand the ‘removal-chain’ as well as we do the ‘supply-chain’, and where we can use this knowledge to not only build more efficient and sustainable infrastructures but to promote behavioral change.” M.I.T. adds that the project aims to make the “invisible infrastructures of trash removal” visible, and raise awareness of the many expenses involved in transporting and treating trash.  Their goal is to change how consumers relate to waste: no more “out of sight, out of mind.”

M.I.T.’s experiment involves attaching radio-frequency identification (RFID) smart tags to “different types of trash so that these items can be followed through the city’s waste management system, revealing the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations.” The New York Times writes that the project has tracked the routes and final destinations of more than 3,000 pieces of trash from New York, London, and Seattle.

Karin Landsberg, an eco-friendly Seattle resident, invited M.I.T. researchers to track her trash. Landsberg was curious to see what happened to her trash upon disposal, and wanted to learn how sustainable her lifestyle really was. All together, twelve of her garbage items, including cans and flourescent lights, have been RFID tagged and await further analysis. In comments to The New York Times, Landsberg said: “If I found out that it wasn’t going where I think it does, if it is less recycled than I hoped …I might think about buying less of it or doing without. Maybe it is more about the reduce than the re-use.”

According to M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab, the location of items of trash are periodically tracked, and “data received from the trash tags is illustrated as a visual paths overlaid on top of satellite images.” Data gathered may take up to several months to analyze, but thus far, results show that trash may take a couple of days or even weeks before it reaches a landfill or moves to other destinations. The New York Times noted that there are limits on how well they can track the garbage: “Tracking has its limitations. Even though the tags have a battery life of two to six months and can report back from overseas, they can easily be crushed in transit inside garbage trucks and at processing facilities.”

TreeHugger writes that consumers won’t be the only ones to benefit, adding that waste management firms could improve their logistics: “waste management is very interested in the results as well, hoping that finding out more about how trash goes through the systems will help them improve their logistics, from trash transportation to recycling to disposal systems.”

Visualizations and data of all the tracked trash will be presented in an Architectural League of New York exhibit, “New York Toward the Sentient City,” which will be open September 17 to November 7. 

Also, learn more about how the trash tags work.

Image credit: Trash Track, MIT Senseable City Lab

One thought on “Tracking the Trash “Removal Chain”

  1. Rubbish Removal 10/30/2009 / 6:51 am

    The term rubbish can be applied broadly to everything from tree branches to old paint, creating a problem for one-size-fits-all disposal methods.

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